N.J. judge tackles a tough docket in Iraq

MOSUL, IRAQ — MOSUL, Iraq - For one New Jersey judge, Iraq may be his greatest trial.

Donald F. Campbell, who usually presides over custody and murder cases in Toms River, N.J., now has the task of resurrecting the system of courts, jails and prisons for this nation of 24 million people.


Campbell, who holds the rank of major general in the Army Reserve, has engaged in nation-building projects in places such as Vietnam and Haiti. But he has never attempted anything like this.

"This is something I've been doing for a long time," he says, "but it is on a much bigger scale."


The stakes are enormous. As U.S. forces and their allies fight what seems like an increasingly organized enemy, they are racing to build a new Iraqi government. Many fear that the longer disorder drags on, the more people here will support guerrilla attacks.

The war shut down Iraq's criminal justice system. All 300 of Saddam Hussein's prisons were looted. So were many courthouses. For weeks, most of the Justice Ministry's 12,000 employees - including its 700 judges - sat idle.

Today, half of the nation's courts have yet to open. As many as 4,000 prisoners are being held in makeshift detention centers, and 200 more are pouring into the system every week. Others are leaving just as fast.

When U.S. troops in Mosul turned over the city's temporary jail to Iraqi guards last month, all the inmates escaped.

As the sun rose over the desert one day last week, Campbell flew north to Mosul from Baghdad in a Black Hawk helicopter on a mission with Iraqi Supreme Court Justice Mudhat Makhmud. As "senior adviser" to Iraq's Ministry of Justice, Campbell chose Makhmud, a 35-year veteran of the bench, to serve as acting minister. Over the next few months, the two hope to visit all 12 of Iraq's judicial districts.

Some coalition officials wear desert gear and are surrounded by gun-toting security agents in dark glasses. On the trip to Mosul, Campbell wore a dark blue coat and tie, traveled with one aide and carried his battered leather briefcase.

Makhmud was wary of being seen as an agent for the U.S.-led coalition. So in Mosul, he refused the offer of a Humvee escort and caught a cab to the courthouse to talk with judges and lawyers.

Campbell, meanwhile, met with U.S. military lawyers, or judge advocate generals, from the 101st Airborne Division, who are in charge of Mosul's courts and prisons. They reported that both systems had made slow but substantial progress.


After Mosul fell in early April, officers told Campbell, the courthouses were looted, the police stations closed and all criminal records burned. Lawyers and judges stayed home to avoid the violence on the street.

Today, all of the city's courts have reopened. All 12 of its major police stations are open, staffed by Iraqis and Americans. And Mosul's lawyers recently founded a bar association.

Lt. Col. Richard Whitaker, who has broad authority to run the courts and jail here, said he is encouraged by Iraqi reaction to the reforms: "There's a thirst for justice and the rule of law."

But reforming Iraq's court system is no simple matter. Judges who belonged to the Baath Party still arbitrarily free members of the fedayeen, the toppled regime's corps of guerrilla fighters. Police still arrest people without bothering to tell the court system and then accept bribes for their release.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials are grumbling about some of the American-ordered reforms. Police officers in Mosul say that giving suspects access to a lawyer makes it harder to obtain confessions. And they are outraged when judges throw out cases for lack of evidence - their word that the suspect is guilty should be more than enough, they say.

Iraqi lawyers are generally delighted because their role in the system has been strengthened. But this is not a time-conscious culture: They are having trouble adapting to the American practice of charging by the hour.


Just before noon, Campbell arrived at Mosul's main courthouse, partially refurbished after April's looting. But there is still no electricity; there are no telephones or computers. In one wood-paneled courtroom, a group of coalition soldiers snoozed next to the judge's bench in the draining heat.

Crowding into a judge's tiny chambers, Campbell and his team met with a dozen judges, lawyers and prosecutors. He scratched notes in a dictionary-sized appointment book.

The judges appealed for help. They pleaded for their paychecks, four months overdue, and asked for a new building to replace their dingy courthouse.

They also raised legal concerns. One asked that soldiers conduct searches of homes in the presence of the homeowner or a trusted neighbor. Another complained that the coalition sometimes releases prisoners without telling him.

Young coalition soldiers, who are not trained in police work, sometimes dump suspects at police stations without explaining why they were arrested.

Campbell referred most questions to Whitaker. "Everyone in the room wants the same thing," Campbell said. "We want the rule of law in Iraq."


A convoy of Humvees and white SUVs ferried Campbell and a dozen others to the 3,000-bed Badush Prison west of Mosul.

The sprawling facility was looted, right down to the cell doors. Plans call for part of the complex to be renovated over the next several weeks, creating space for about 250 prisoners. The trouble is that much of the looting was done by prison guards. Now the coalition must recruit and train a new staff.

The next stop for Campbell was Mosul's temporary detention center, the site of last month's mass jailbreak. The center is in a former juvenile prison, a small compound resembling a school in a neighborhood of narrow streets. It is guarded by nine military police officers, who supervise 25 Kalashnikov-toting Iraqis.

Makhmud stopped and spoke with prisoners, who pressed their faces through the bars of the window to their cell, formerly the cafeteria. The room was jammed with 91 men, who sleep on thin mattresses on the floor. There was so little space that many hung their shirts, bags and teapots from the bars on the windows.

A bus driver said he was arrested for carrying a pistol without a permit and had spent several weeks locked up without trial. "I did nothing," he said. "Why did they bring me here?"

While Makhmud called conditions at the jail "OK," he said adults should not be confined with juveniles or convicted criminals with people awaiting trial.


Campbell agreed. "It's not satisfactory," he said grimly.

Despite the problems, he flew back to Baghdad that afternoon encouraged: "Every day it's been getting better. There is not one day I feel we have gone in the opposite direction."

Campbell, a native of Temple, Texas, graduated from Catholic schools and Seton Hall University, where he earned degrees in sociology and law. As a young Army intelligence officer in 1969, he served as an adviser to Vietnamese police officers under the Phoenix Program. Critics accused the program of conducting assassinations of Communist leaders in South Vietnam. "There were reputed to be," Campbell said. "I was aware of none."

In civilian life, Campbell worked as a small-town lawyer until 1982, when he was appointed to the bench. Now 60, he is a state Superior Court judge.

After the Iraqi army attacked the Kurds in 1991, Campbell spent several months in northern Iraq helping set up the quasi-independent government there. In 1995, Campbell was assigned to build a modern legal system in Haiti as part of Operation Uphold Democracy.

Today, he lives in Jackson Township, N.J., with his wife, a high school principal. He has four grown children, two of them lawyers.


After arriving in Baghdad on April 28, Campbell went to the coalition's extravagantly decorated headquarters there, nicknamed the Palace of the Four Heads because four gigantic bronze busts of Hussein squat on its roof.

"We slept in sleeping bags, put plastic on windows," he said. "The mosquitoes ate us alive."

Early on, Campbell discovered just how tricky it is to sort friends from foes in postwar Iraq. After meeting the president of Baghdad's bar association, Campbell thought he had found an advocate for reform.

But at his first bar meeting, about 350 outraged lawyers refused to let the president speak. They told Campbell that the man had been a ranking Baathist and had worked directly for one of Hussein's sons. So Campbell summarily dismissed him and presided over the election of a successor.

The truth can be elusive here. But Campbell said he is certain of one thing.

If he ever had doubts about the justification for the war against Iraq's dictatorship, he said, he doesn't anymore. He has heard too many stories about arbitrary arrests, torture and executions.


"A man who can kill 250,000 to 1 million of his own people just to remain in power is someone who should be brought down."